Pride Of The Father

A once-absent dad and a `Lion King' actor use both shared and wildly different experiences to fight for sons everywhere.

August 08, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

They grew up worlds apart - James Brown-Orleans in Ghana and Joe Jones in Lafayette Homes. But in at least one respect, they ended up in the same place, as staunch believers in the importance of strengthening relationships between fathers and sons.

Tonight, Brown-Orleans, an actor in the touring production of The Lion King, and Jones, president and founder of the nonprofit Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, will share the stage when they join other fathers and their children in the final number of The Rising of the Son, a benefit for CFWD, performed by Lion King cast members at Center Stage.

Together, Brown-Orleans, Jones and the others will sing:

I can see generations in your eyes,

But my once broken heart still trembles on

So give me your hand and

We'll take to the skies.

The song affirms bonds that were tested during the early lives of both men. Brown-Orleans' career choice provoked his father's initial disapproval. Jones, the son of an absentee father, perpetuated the cycle by becoming the largely absent father of an out-of-wedlock son.

Both men underwent life-changing experiences at approximately the same age. At 10, Brown-Orleans was uprooted from his home in Ghana when his family moved to the Washington area, where his mother was working as a nurse and his father took a job in the education department of the Ghanaian embassy.

"Living in Ghana was like living in Neverland. It was constant playing, playing, playing, playing all day," recalls Brown-Orleans, backstage at the Hippodrome Theatre before a performance of The Lion King. "In Ghana you just never heard of a human being taking another human being's life. It was just a sense of community. ... So when we came here, for me it was like, wow, this is reality."

A few miles away, in a conference room at CFWD, Jones has a very different memory of that period in his life. At age 9, Jones watched his father pack a duffel bag and leave the family's apartment, never to return. Though his father maintained sporadic contact with his son, Jones' parents' separation and divorce "shook my world. It devastated me in ways I didn't even understand at that time," he says.

When he was 11, Jones moved with his mother, a nurse, to West Baltimore, and he became involved with some older teens who introduced him to drugs. He began using heroin and cocaine. By age 14, he was in jail, the first of a series of incarcerations that would continue for the next 17 years.

Around the time that Brown-Orleans was discovering drama at High Point High School in Beltsville, Jones was being kicked out of a series of schools - Douglass, Edmondson, Forest Park. At that point, there would have been no reason to believe that the budding actor from Ghana would ever cross paths with the repeat offender from Baltimore's mean streets, much less that they would wind up working toward the same goal.

The notion that a Broadway musical would bring them together would have seemed even more far-fetched. Yet the subject of The Lion King is particularly apropos. Loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Lion King is about the relationship between a father and son, and the son's soul-searching over whether to continue his father's legacy.

Two years ago, when The Lion King was in Cleveland, Brown-Orleans met a young boy who attended the musical with a school group. "We became good friends," says the actor, who plays Banzai, one of three rabble-rousing hyenas in the show. The son of an absentee father, the boy "was struggling with what kind of man he'd grow up to be. He was afraid he'd be like his father," says Brown-Orleans.

Before The Lion King left town, Brown-Orleans wrote a poem as a gift for the boy - "something to encourage him." Later, the actor and his partner, a former teacher named Lisa A. Hoeffner, turned the poem into a small, self-published book called The Rising of the Son and packaged it with a CD of Brown-Orleans singing a half-dozen original songs.

Then last winter, Hoeffner saw a documentary called True Dads on Spike TV. Among the fathers profiled was Joe Jones who, after completing a drug treatment program in the late 1980s, became an addiction counselor working with at-risk pregnant women for the Baltimore City Health Department.

As the documentary recounted, Jones found many services available for expectant mothers, but he found almost nothing comparable for fathers. So, in 1993, he founded the Men's Services Responsible Fatherhood Program, which later evolved into CFWD. Along the way, he re-established ties with the son who had been born out-of-wedlock, and he married and had a second son, Corey.

Last year, when Corey turned 13, Jones sat him down and told him his life story. "Dad, you were a bad man," said Corey, who is volunteering at CFWD this summer as part of his school community service requirement. Nowadays, however, Corey acknowledges, "He's a good dad even though he may get on my nerves sometimes."

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